Child’s Play: In a Yard or Up a Tree
April showers bring May flowers. And the warmer weather always seems to turn our attention to the great outdoors – or, at least, our great backyard. And sooner or later our children decide that their part of the space needs “a little something extra.” Don’t be surprised when the day comes that a little voice turn’s to you and says, “Can we build a tree house?”
Tree houses, playhouses, play structures, forts — they’re a rite of passage for youngsters; a place to explore, to imagine, to keep their younger brothers and sisters out. And, unfortunately, they can be a source of anxiety for parents. However, with the right kind of planning and construction, tree houses and ground-level play structures can prove beneficial to adults as well. According to the National Association of Realtors, outdoor spaces have become a bigger part of the “curb appeal” that attracts buyers and can even increase a home’s selling price. So, as tempting as it may be to turn “Junior” loose with a few boards, nails, and gallons of paint, take advantage your child’s desire to build a playhouse or tree house and maybe even increase your property value at the same time.
We contacted San Francisco artist and play structure expert Barbara Butler who knows a lot about creating spaces that inspire imagination in the minds of the young and the young-at-heart.
Whether you’re planning to build a mini-mansion for your mini-me this year, or a simpler structure which houses imagination more than amenities, it’s imperative to keep safety in mind. We asked Barbara for her top 10 DIY safety tips on building a backyard play space for children. Some of it is common sense, all of it bears repeating. Here’s what Barbara has to say:
- Consult your local building codes and file necessary building permits before starting your project. Nothing is more frustrating for you or devastating for your child than finding you have to tear down the structure when it doesn’t pass local standards. If your locality does not have specific codes for tree houses or play structures, use building codes for backyard decks as a guide. Barbara and her team attach their towers to the ground with concrete footings. In earthquake or hurricane areas, they add the appropriate tie-down hardware. Keep deck heights at a maximum of 7’ off the ground and install 3’ high railing.
- Plan your space before you build and watch out for over-exposure to the sun. Try to place your structure in a shady spot.
- Round all of the edges on the structure to avoid sharp corners, and sand or grind wood surfaces down to reduce the possibilities of splinters.
- Anticipate a child’s natural tendency to explore. Avoid creating any entrapments in the railing for a child’s head or torso. Avoid any gaps in railings larger than 3-1/2” x 5-1/2”.
- Watch nearby greenery. Keep Rose bushes and other thorny, spiky plants away from the structures and, especially, keep your eyes on trees. Make sure overhead branches of trees are trimmed regularly, so that nothing will fall on the kids during play and keep tree branches out of reach of young arms. Nothing is more enticing to a child than the realization that if they stand on the roof or railing of a play structure, and stretch just a little, they can reach a previously unreachable upper branch.
- Make sure no electrical wires are within reach of the structure. Once kids get playing, they don’t stop to think whether an overhead wire is part of the play structure or not.
- Use only non-toxic materials on your structure, when building and for maintenance. Use lead-free paints or stain the wood instead. Barbara suggests staining over painting, as stains are easier to maintain: paint tends to chip & peel, while stains simply fade with time.
- Remove any loose additions that kids may have attached to the structure. Talk to your kids and their friends about making “additions” to the play structure and set ground rules early that adding ropes, stairs, and towers won’t be tolerated.
- Design easy ways up and down for smaller kids, as well as challenging ways for older kids. The adults will appreciate the easy way up also!
- Inspect your play structure frequently, before the spring and summer when kids start to play outside. Treat the inspection as you would if you were opening a pool for the season. At least once a year, give your play structure a thorough inspection: tighten bolts, check for damage, clean off debris and spider webs, inspect for splinters and peeling paint, and check the swing hardware.
We agree with Barbara, when planning a play structure, look beyond this summer and plan for your structure to be part of your family’s life for years to come. A well-built, well-maintained tree house will amuse your children today and enchant your grandchildren in the next generation.
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